Canadian Sikh Heritage | Sundar Singh Thandi
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Sundar Singh Thandi

A saga of leadership and devotion towards Gur Sikh Temple Sundar Singh and Mohinder Kaur (was also known as Harnam Kaur), the Thandi Family of Abbotsford

Sundar Singh Thandi, affectionately known by the Abbotsford families as Tayaji (elder uncle) arrived on the shores of BC at the turn of the century 1907 from the small province of Punjab in northwestern India. He was among the first Sikh men to arrive in BC as economic migrants hoping to make a better life in Canada to support their families in India. As a young man he quickly adapted to the need of the hour and took his first job at the Tretheway Lumber Company at the sawmill located on Mill Lake in Abbotsford that was owned by the Tretheway family. The same mill was later renamed the Abbotsford Lumber Mill. Sundar Singh started working as a laborer but being such a hard worker with a great work ethic he was eventually promoted and put in charge of fifteen to thirty men. He was affectionately called ‘the boss,’ by all the men, recalls Sundar Singh’s nephew Sucha Thandi, a local farmer in Abbotsford. It was a largely bachelor society of men living with each other and supporting one another through the rough and unsettling times.

It was exactly in this raw and difficult times that Sundar Singh and Arjan Singh along with some of the other Sikh mill workers first thought of constructing a small Gurdwara in Abbotsford around the year 1907. As much as Sucha can recall approximately $3000 dollars were raised and deposited with the civic authorities, which was a sizable amount for that period, considering the wages were about 10 cents an hour. Sundar Singh was instrumental in buying one acre of land at the top of the town on a crested hill. He then thought of requesting the Trethewey Lumber Company to donate some of the lumber towards the construction of the Gurdwara. He further inspired every Sikh to give money in-kind or cash, and to participate in the noble cause of building the Gurdwara. The Tretheway family agreed to provide whatever lumber the Sikh men could carry on their backs, free of charge. Every Sikh, including Sundar Singh, cleaned the lumber and painstakingly carried the planks on their shoulders from the mill to the construction site of the Gurdwara – about a quarter kilometer away.

It is not difficult to contemplate the kind of difficulties all these men had to go through since the Gurdwara’s site was located up on a hill. Slowly and steadily, Sundar Singh and his Sikh compatriots became involved in building the Gurdwara from 1908 – 19011. The Gurdwara was constructed to mirror the popular frontier town building style of the time with a wood framed gable roof and false front facing the main street. The temple contained a prayer hall on the uppoer floor a community kitchen on the ground floor and four entrances facing the four cardinal points of the compass.  In 1911 the building of the Gur Sikh Temple was completed and its doors opened to the sangat in February 2012. The opening was well attended by local Sikhs and non-Sikhs and many came from Vancouver and Victoria to take part in the special prayers. The Khalsa Diwan Society of Vancouver (est. 1906) became associated with this Gur Sikh Temple and shared their title recognizing this Gurdwara as one under their Constitution. Sundar Singh was very instrumental throughout this process. After the completion of the Gurdwara in Abbotsford, Sundar Singh then went back to India in order to get married to his young bride Mohinder Kaur (also known as Harnam Kaur or ‘Bossni” (wife of the boss)). Upon his return because he was inclined towards doing farming, he purchased land and became a local dairy farmer.

During his stay in the Punjab, Sundar Singh had suggested to Sucha Singh’s elder brother that if he studied and passed grade ten, it would be easier for him to migrate to Canada. Unfortunately, Sucha’s brother could not pass with the prerequisite good scores. Sundar Singh had even suggested the same to the young Sucha, and also said that if and when he did make it to Canada, then Sundar would have a job for him to help with farm work.

It would take many more years before Sucha Thandi would eventually come to Canada in 1953 through his marriage to a young New Westminster bride. In 1950 Ossi Kaur who was born in New Westminster had moved to Punjab when her family decided to return to the homeland.  Before leaving Canada, Ossi’s father had already started to look for a suitable groom for her. Ossi’s father shared his intention with Tayee (Sundar Singh’s wife Mohinder) who had a photo of Sucha at her home. Unusual for those times, Tayee suggested that the boy and girl see each other when Ossi went to India, and if they liked each other then they could be married. After the initial settlement back in India, Ossi’s father sent a family friend, Sher Singh to go to Mahilpur to meet Sucha, and if he approved of him, they would pursue the matter further. Sher Singh met up with Sucha Thandi and learned of how he was related to Sundar Singh and gave his approvals. After all the formalities, Ossi and Sucha were engaged and soon married in the year 1952.

In 1953 Sucha and Ossi left on a circuitous journey to Canada that was full of memorable moments. At that time, they traveled on a Pan America flight that took them to Hongkong from Delhi. Upon landing they found their way to the Gurdwara where they had planned to stay for two days. Generally, those traveling between India and Canada and other colonies, stayed at the Gurdwara between journeys. The Bhai (granthi) at the Gurdwara was very kind to them and gave them a room to stay for one night and then moved them to his own house. He was especially kind and considerate after he saw that Ossi was pregnant. The Granthi’s wife was Russian born and she did a lot for Ossi. From Hong Kong they boarded a ship to the USA called the President Cleveland and landed in San Franscisco whereby they took a train to Vancouver. By evening the next day, they reached the Vancouver Waterfront Station. They had forty American dollars with them at the time which they converted into Canadian dollars.

From Vancouver, they came over to Abbotsford and went to the Gur Sikh temple to pay their respects. They took a taxi, driven by a European decent driver, who assured them that he would safely take them to Sundar Singh’s farm. Sucha recalls how the roads to Abbotsford were small and narrow. Once they got on the Trans-Canada Highway, they quickly found the farm and were happy to be with Sundar Singh and Mohinder Kaur.

He remembers that one of the first things he did after arriving in Abbotsford was to visit the Gur Sikh Temple in Abbotsford. He saw the building which he says was the same as it is now, but the original park at the back was not there anymore and there was a longish driveway to the Gurdwara from the side street. According to Sucha, “I found the Gurdwara to be simple and felt less people at the Gurdwara as compared to the Gurdwaras in Punjab. There was not that much of a crowd in the Gurdwara. The Nishan Sahib could be seen from a far off distance and it was made of wooden cedar tree trunk and had a bulb fixed on top of it. It was approximately 70 feet tall”.

There were only few other Indo-Canadian families living in Abbotsford in the 1950’s, according to Sucha Singh. These few families in Abbotsford and a few others in the Fraser Valley tried and contributed to the wellbeing of the community to the best of their abilities. The Thandi family especially was actively involved with the Gur Sikh Temple. They contributed with the making of the front main staircase and also helped put up the newer nishaan sahib in 1957. Earlier the tall cedar tree had acted as the nishaan sahib. The Abbotsford authorities pointed to the fact that the tree could be a problem to the traffic and passerby on the South Fraser Way as it might fall on the road. Hence a new nishaan sahib, made of steel was placed at the Gurdwara. In addition, the stairs in front of the Gur Sikh Temple which had been made of wood needed replacing and Mohinder Tayee gave money for the construction of new stairs made of concrete.

Sucha feels very proud that the old Abbotsford Gurdwara has been recognized as a National Historic Site. He believes that through this Gurdwara the history of early Sikh settlers will become known to the world. The location of the Gur Sikh Temple is also very appropriate as it is at the centre of the city and has a large space of land on which it sits. It is on a high ground, and as a result it can be seen and noticed from far. Indeed, one can see the whole town from there as well, something that is certainly befitting given the rich history of its humble and historic beginnings.